Luciano Pradal, the chestnut roaster
On cold Ottawa days, visitors to the Byward Market find that Luciano Pradal’s chestnuts can warm their hands and hearts.
Vendor warms hearts and hands, and feeds souls,
‘Chestnuts basically saved generation after generation from famine, because it’s a super-food. A tree can produce hundreds of pounds of chestnuts.’
n a grey Saturday in November, visitors to the Byward Market gather around Luciano Pradal’s outdoor cart the way schoolchildren circle a storyteller. They are attracted by the warmth of the wood charcoal burning in his barbecue, the heavy aroma of the chestnuts he’s roasting, and by his deep and thick accent, as he switches between English, French and his native Italian.
He has put a single roasted chestnut in a folded napkin, and urges a passerby to put it in his pocket. The humidity, he says, will mix with the fibre and starches in the nut to give it a rich, creamy texture. If you eat it right away, he warns, it will be too crunchy.
Many of the people who stop, either for a single chestnut or, for five dollars, a soup can’s worth, are trying them for the first time. For others, though, the brief engagement is a reminder of some past encounter — with a street vendor in Paris, perhaps, or a youthful weekend sojourn to Manhattan. Whatever the particulars, the power of these chestnuts — “the bread of the poor,” he calls them — to uncover memories long forgotten is remarkable, and Luciano’s customers seem almost obliged to share their reminiscences with him.
“Make a wish,” he tells them as they slip the warm packages into their pockets.
■ Luciano’s first experience with roasted chestnuts occurred more than 60 years ago, in the Italian village of Vittorio Veneto, north of Venice, where he grew up. There was no central heating, he recalls, and so his mother, widowed by the Second World War’s Russian front when Luciano was just a baby, would be up early, cooking on the stove.
He remembers, too, always wearing shorts, even on cold days. The war had just ended, and they had no money for long pants, and when he left for school, his mother would hand him chestnuts to put in his pockets.
“That was my breakfast,” he says, “and on the way to school they would keep my hands warm.
“The chestnuts were part of our culture.”
By the time he was 14 he was working in a bakery, and at 19 he had moved to Turin and become a baker and pastry technician. Five years later, in 1966, he emigrated to Canada, landing in Ottawa and working in bakeries and on construction sites for a few years until he was hired as a stationary engineer with the federal public service, taking care of commercial buildings. He married, raised two children, and worked in the same job for close to 35 years before retiring four years ago.
Retirement has not slowed him, though. At 69, he wakes up at five o’clock each day and, after stretching, takes an hour-long walk with a couple of his Carlington neighbours. He tends vegetable gardens at Villa Marconi, a long-term care facility. He greets visitors at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canadian War Museum. He volunteers for the annual Jane’s Walk through Ottawa neighbourhoods, and also serves throughout the year as a tour guide for various operators, including the City of Ottawa, showing tourists around the capital.
“I love to socialize,” he says. “I’m a people person. I love to talk, to interact, to chat, to respect.”
The chestnut business started two winters ago, first on Preston Street and then in the Byward Market, in front of La Bottega Nicastro on George Street. He’s there every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Last year he sold chestnuts from September to March. This year, he says, he may just work until Christmas.
He swears by their health benefits: they contain no gluten or cholesterol, very little fat, and are the only nut with vitamin C. Additionally, alongside the roasted chestnuts he sells, patrons may find free samples of the castagnaccio he makes with chestnut flour, raisins, pine nuts, walnuts, olive oil, water and rosemary. “It’s the oldest power bar,” he says.
He can also tell you his recipe for liqueur-soaked chestnuts. “They give a kick to your metabolism.”
“Chestnuts,” he adds, “basically saved generation after generation from famine, because it’s a super-food. A tree can produce hundreds of pounds of chestnuts.
“Everybody — Asian, Arabs, European, African, South American — they know about chestnuts, and they love them.”
And with his government pension and modest lifestyle, he admits he doesn’t rely on his income from selling chestnuts.
“But when you give a child warm chestnuts to put in his pocket, and you see his face light up, to me there is no price for that.
“Freshly roasted chestnuts ... what do you need more than that in life?” Through profiles here and online, Bruce Deachman uncovers the people who bring Ottawa to life; people who exhibit an unusual passion or obsession. Do you know someone who is one in a million? A friend who keeps pigeons? A neice who does nothing but enter contests? Email the details to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is Luciano Pradal’s third winter roasting and selling chestnuts in the Byward Market. ‘I love to socialize,’ he says.